Football: The urbane Anglophile who wants to be football's next world leader: Lennart Johansson

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As the man in charge of European football's governing body, Lennart Johansson has never been afraid to stick his neck out. Now, as he goes for the job of Fifa president, as well as overseeing rival bids from England and Germany for the 2006 World Cup, 1998 promises to be the most important year of his career.

Lunch with Lennart Johansson, on a cold, dark and icy winter's day in Stockholm. The Uefa president is enjoying an increasingly rare few hours at the home of his beloved AIK Stockholm in the Solna area of the city, and as we sit in the Rasunda stadium's plush restaurant overlooking the pitch, the 68-year-old is in a good mood.

"I watched Arsenal beat West Ham on the television in the cup." he said proudly. "First thing this morning. Of course, you have Manchester United and Liverpool, but Arsenal are the best of the lot." He says this with a twinkle in his eye. Lennart Johansson, it appears, is a Gunner.

Judging by his track record, these Anglophile sentiments are not entirely surprising. This is the man who persuaded his colleagues on Uefa's executive committee to allow Liverpool back into European competition after the club's ban following the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985. "English and European clubs had suffered enough," he says. "My colleagues took some convincing, but England needed Europe, and Europe needed England again."

This is also the man who backed the English bid to stage what turned out to be a successful 1996 European Championship. "I knew there would be a risk, and that if any trouble took place I would be to blame. Even your own press criticised my judgement because they believed that hooliganism would break out again."

So why was he prepared to stick his neck out, then? Johansson plays around with his steak for a few seconds. "Well, you know, a shy guy never kisses a beautiful girl."

Having embraced the girl, Johansson would be entitled to look forward to a relationship of mutual understanding and co-operation. Instead, in a World Cup year that promises to be one of the most important in his long and impressive career in football administration, the Swede faces mounting challenges, both personal and as the Uefa president, and the English are playing a part in all this.

All the talk right now, ludicrous as it may seem with both the 1998 and 2002 World Cup to get under our belts, is of the 2006 World Cup bid. Germany have always made it known that they want to stage the competition then. England have also joined a battle in danger of lurching out of control. The media have latched on to another England versus Germany confrontation, and only last week Franz Beckenbauer suggested the two countries should co-host the competition.

In Stockholm, heads were shaking. "What worries me in particular is the very early start that both countries have made," Johansson says. "They must remember that other parts of the world will also have expectations, like Africa and Brazil. Both Germany and England should have waited before spending the money they already have. It could be a big waste of both money and time."

Does he support a joint bid? "There is an argument about European Community bids such as this. and there is also an argument that there are many small countries in Europe who could not make a World Cup bid by themselves. If Germany and England really are in agreement, then the concept is worth discussing, but we are talking about two, equally strong countries. Both are well-organised, and both have a proven track record in the past. We are talking about two of the most experienced countries in world football, either of whom can quite easily stage the World Cup by themselves."

Like the Olympics, the World Cup is beginning to voyage into uncharted waters. Previously always held in either Europe or South America, the second biggest sporting event in the world behind the Olympic Games broke with tradition in 1994, when the United States staged a financially successful tournament. Now Asia, under the guise of Japan and South Korea, will show its worth in 2002. Johansson expects more to come.

"With the good of the global game at heart, I believe in the rotation system in football," he says. "So, if Africa or Brazil, are ready for the World Cup, then it is a good argument to include them. Although I must face the fact that, right now, I am the Uefa president, I cannot afford to be local-minded. That's why I'm taking the global standpoint here. Don't forget, Europe has the World Cup this year. There is an argument that it is somebody's else's turn in 2006. If an African country can house 32 teams then they must be respected."

So where does all this leave what is beginning to look like an ill-planned World Cup bid by the Germans and our good selves? Johansson, as always, delivers a measured answer. "It would have been better for all of us to have sat down first and discussed this," he says.

"The executive committee of Uefa said all along that we should avoid any big fuss and the expenditure of an enormous amount of money on lobbying for the 1996 European Championships and 2006 World Cup. Let's work on England for 1996, and Germany for 2006. Obviously this never came to the ears of the English Football Association."

Does he believe this? "I have to," he answers. "If the FA say this is the case, then I have to believe them." Sitting opposite him over lunch, one has to say he did not appear totally convinced. How did such a misunderstanding happen? "I don't know. You tell me. But Fifa statutes rule that any country can bid for the World Cup, so we have to stay open-minded."

The president expands. "I guess the appetite grows when you are eating," he says. "Euro '96 was a success, and from this the English World Cup bid was born. Knowing the gentleman's agreement over Euro '96 and the World Cup in 2006, I was asked if I thought England were capable of staging the World Cup, I said yes, of course. I still believe this, but their bid has placed Germany in a difficult situation. He would, then, prefer a single bid from Europe? "Of course, it would make life a great deal easier, and that is what we are aiming for. The decision for 2006 will not be made until June 2000, so we have enough time to sort this out, but I would prefer this to be sooner, rather than later, so that the expenditure can stop. I repeat what I said earlier: both countries started far too early."

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out the problems a joint bid between England and Germany would cause, and also the probability of a split vote, which would allow another country from another continent in for 2006. With this in mind, I asked the president one final question on this matter. Could England lose Europe the 2006 World Cup? "Yes, they could," he replies. "Very much so."

By this summer's shindig in France, Johansson will either be presiding over Fifa, the world governing body or, to use his words, "fishing." After eight years as the Uefa president, he has put himself up as a candidate in the elections to decide who will lead the game into the millennium. With the likes of Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Pele and crucially, Europe and Africa lending their public support, the smart money says he has an outstanding chance.

Next Saturday he will make his manifesto announcement, but over lunch he was prepared to touch on a few matters that, as the potential Fifa president, would like to see happen. The most important aspect for me is the solidarity of world football," he says. "I am the captain of a team at Uefa, and the team plays a crucial role. This is what I would be at Fifa.

"I think the game generates enough resources, but more should be spent on grassroots. Enough is already spent on the professional game, and too much money is going to sources that don't need it as much as the development of the game. This is why I would like to see the national association strengthened, so that they can have more, not less, say in the running of football."

In other words, Johansson is promising a surge of facilities, playing fields and general access to all departments of football, regardless of sex, age and level. He will also maintain the one country-one vote concept, and a more democratic process.

But what of the current criticisms? Is he aware of the ticketing problems at this summer's World Cup? "Yes I am," he replies. "If I were the president I would change the system. Too small a number of tickets is being given to outsiders. Norway, for example, had expectations of 50,000 tickets, and they have 3,000. There is always criticism over this at every World Cup, but this time it is particularly low, and it is too late to do anything about it."

Does he think his actions have diluted the Champions' League by including runners-up? "I accept this point. It's no longer a cup competition between champions. It is a combination of financial and sporting needs. We could easily go back to the old system, but that would make the rich even richer, and the poor poorer. We've lost a little to gain a lot."

Could Uefa, as has been threatened, lead a breakaway from Fifa? "Some people say it's a potential situation, but I don't believe in it. You can't run if a decision goes against you. Yes, so Europe generates most of the money, and yes, we were very proud to have seven out of the last eight in the 1994 World Cup. But we live in a democracy, and the world of football must remain united. If we lose this solidarity, then we will be in a mess."

What, then, of the chances of a European club league? Johansson shakes his head. "No, I don't think so. We are very close to announcing an international calendar where all the players around Europe are free at the same time to play for their countries. This is the future. More dates for international matches, and the reduction in the number of clubs in the Premier League in order to accommodate the increased number of internationals.

Whenever I've met Johansson he has always struck an impressive and assured figure. Only once has he let his guard slip. Last year, he found himself in a storm following remarks that branded him a racist. Calls for his resignation rained in, especially from the Professional Footballers' Association in England.

"I was in a very bad state," he admits. "The short-term damage was immense. I can't completely criticise the press because my words were accurately reported. It was more the headlines that were wrong. For example, I said that while there were many black footballers and athletes, no one had followed Arthur Ashe's success, and there were no black swimmers. This was translated into me saying that blacks can't swim. I said a few other things which were supposed to be harmless jokes. I made jokes about Swedes too, and the English, the Germans, and anyone else. But I should have known better. I have no excuses."

What saw him through the storm was support from, in particular, the African nations. "They helped me a great deal," Johansson says. "Those who know me understand that I am not a racist. I have worked against racism all my life, together with the philosophy in Sweden of a multi-racial society."

Has he learned any lessons? "To be careful with statements, and not to make jokes that could be misinterpreted. It was a silly mistake."

But a mistake that is unlikely to cost him come the presidential elections for Fifa. We will know the outcome in June, but whatever happens, these are the last few months of Johansson's Uefa presidency. "If I fail then I will quit my post and go fishing," he insists. "The Uefa executive committee have asked me to stay on until they can find my successor, but as soon as they have, I will go."